Thursday, May 20, 2010

13. Distress by Greg Egan

I just read someone describe genre fiction (of which science-fiction is one representative) as an opposite to literature that discusses philosophical issues. I see the suggested Toni Morrison book and raise Distress
Let me digress for a bit. See, science fiction may be my favorite genre exactly because it often is so philosophical. I'm not a total nerd for gadgetry, so I don't read sci-fi because of the electronic inventions in them. After all, most of the time future and the inventions are used as a vehicle to discuss much larger issues. As an example, in my favorite book, The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, gadgets are at the foreground: there are nanobots, and most importantly, the electronic book that  teaches its reader interactively and in an age-appropriate manner. Yet, it's not about how awesome horse robots or guns attached to your head are, or how cool that interactive book is; instead, it deals primarily with social classes, and how a class predetermines one's life. Also, it's a celebration of literacy as a tool to overcome obstacles. It's bordering on metafiction, and it's just a genius novel. 
Another reason why I love sci-fi is the social issues discussed in it. It sucks that you are reading a fantasy novel where people grow tails, do magic, ride dragons--and the only place a woman has in that story is to be some kind of a crutch for the male protagonist. Or, the characters are different "races": they share the same features and are basically one huge mass without any individualism. It's apparently easier to imagine flying dragons and elves than gender and race equality, you know? Not so with sci-fi. Say what you want about Robert Heinlein, but he basically wrote The Handmaid's Tale already in the 50s in Revolt in 2100.  Not to mention that only toward the end of Starship Troopers does he reveal that the main character is actually Filipino (yet another indicator of why Paul Verhoeven just didn't get the book). It's at the same time wonderful and utterly sad that only in reading sci-fi I am not annoyed by stereotypical portrayals of gender and race.
As an example, in Distress the world is at a state where you can choose your biological sex. If you feel like you are a man trapped in a woman's body, you can change that very easily, and vice versa. Also, if you don't think sex is a big deal at all, you can wipe out all of your genitals and become asex. From a linguistic point of view this is also done amazingly throughout the book: Egan creates third person pronouns for all people who do not fall into traditional he-she groups, and uses them throughout the book without any raised eyebrows from the protagonists. It's like... damn. Wish it was that easy, instead of people getting their bow ties in a twist when a guy has a sex change operation. Toward the end of the book, the main protagonist, Andrew, and an asex accomplice of his have a big discussion about it. Andrew does not understand how someone can be asex, and Egan uses him as a conductor of all the readers' possible questions as to why these different genders would exist in the future. 

Oh yeah, Distress...
Andrew Worth is a film maker, carrying his recording tools within himself. After an especially harrowing project where he set out to expose the perils of "frankenscience" (a derogatory term for science that meddles with human biology), he is ready to move on. When he hears about a gig to cover a conference focusing on the Theory of Everything (TOE), he convinces his boss to take the project away from his colleague and give it to him.
The project sends him to Stateless, an artificially built island where anarchists come to create their own destiny and rules. Stateless is the host of the year's conference, and Andrew has been advised to focus on Nobel Laureate, former child genius Violet Mosala, whose TOE everyone is waiting for with baited breath. Well, excluding groups such as the mysterious Anthrocosmologists, who believe that once the right TOE has been revealed, the universe will unravel itself and human kind will be destroyed, and the Mystical Renaissance movement who believes that life is such a mystery that it is better left uninvestigated. Their mouthpiece, Janet Walsh, is an expert in creating strawman arguments and bringing about irrelevant, knee-jerk reaction inducing "evidence" to undermine Mosala's intellect.  Hmm, I wonder if we could find a modern equivalent to her in real life...
Soon Andrew is tipped off about a plot on Mosala's life, and the story takes a quick turn straight into action-movie alley. Andrew does not know who to trust, or even what he thinks of "frankenscience" or TOE--his feelings go from loathing to fear to utilizing science the best he can. Will science be used for good in TOE, or will science blow us into smithereens?
If that does not qualify as philosophical pondering, then I really don't know what would.

ETA: Apparently using Chrome to update this blog creates double line spaces where only a single space should be. Hence the formatting this time. I'll look into it.

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